Movies come and movies go movie posters stay

September 27, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen

Old movie posters and cinema lobby cards, many more exciting and of greater lasting value than the films they hyped, are now auction house hits and hot collectibles. Prices of the most desirable posters have doubled and, in some cases, tripled in the last two years. Even lesser quality examples have inched up, although more cautiously.

Spurred in part by visibility at the big New York auctions, including a Sotheby's sale earlier this month that grossed $672,210 for 276 lots, and a coffee table-size illustrated history, "Reel Art: Great Posters from the Golden Age of the Silver Screen," by Stephen Rebello and Richard Allen (Abbeville Press, $29.95), nostalgic movie advertising has captured the attention of collectors, investors, decorators, corporate art consultants, movie studios and museums.

"Every collectible goes though a period of neglect and then at least 25 years later finds its place in the context of pop culture," asserts poster dealer George Theofiles of New Freedom, Pa., who has been selling film posters since 1966 though his catalog "Miscellaneous Man."

Posters to bank on

Television's onslaught and the demise of grand movie palaces in the 1950s ended the heyday of movie posters. Blockbuster vintage posters are relatively rare today, even though thousands of these advertisements were lent each year by film distributors to theaters for about 15 cents each (theater owners got around 8 cents back for each one returned). Old posters piled up at cinemas and distribution centers; during World War II stacks were sent to paper recycling drives. It's said that Warner Bros. burned them for heat during a cold spell.

Sometimes large caches survived, and dealers and collectors now are banking on them after years of low prices. "I purchased a pile 15 years ago from a theater usher who was paid 15 cents for each afternoon's work plus all the posters he could take home," Mr. Theofiles recalled. He also bought 6 1/2 tons of movie posters from one distributor in the early-1970s, selling them all in three months mostly for 10 and 15 cents each, some for $1. "One big customer bought an old bank building and stored his posters in the tellers' cages," said Mr. Theofiles, amused by the prescient warehousing venue.

Christie's first movie poster auction in Dec. 1990 was a bonanza. A one-sheet (41 x 27 inches) poster picturing Boris Karloff, advertising his 1921 film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," sold for a then-record $37,500. In all, 271 lots brought $915,255. A year later, an action-packed, colorful three-sheet (81 x 41 inches) 1933 King Kong poster skyrocketed to a record $57,200, more than double its pre-sale estimate, in a sale grossing nearly $1.2 million for 301 lots. Christie's next sale is set for Dec. 14th in New York.

Sotheby's opened this fall's auction season with its first movie poster sale, scoring a new one-sheet record of $49,500 for one of two known posters from D.W. Griffith's 1916 epic, "The Birth of a Nation," depicting a charging Klu Klux Klansman on his horse. It topped the $48,400 paid at Christie's last December for a one-sheet from the 1932 film "The Old Dark House," showing a spooky, green-faced Karloff and the large face of a frightened woman. (Horror, fantasy and science fiction themes comprise the hottest segment of the poster market.)

Star-driven desirability

Since the late-1970s, collecting has been celebrity-driven; people want stars' posters. But what also makes a poster valuable today are aesthetics, rarity, the film's importance and the poster's medium. Stone lithographs from the silent era are better quality and more desirable than offset printing used later. Condition also is a factor because most posters have been restored or need conservation and backing; otherwise, they're simply too fragile to handle. Many big spenders today are interested in more than investment potential; they see movie posters as American art and cultural history. And, since movies are a major American export, there's a world-wide market: Six dealers and collectors from Paris and two from London attended Sotheby's sale.

Posters known in only one or two copies bring the high prices. At Sotheby's, a unique Cubist art deco design insert card (36 x 14 pTC inches) for Fritz Lang's 1926 silent science fiction film "Metropolis" fetched $33,000 (estimated at $20,000 to $25,000).

Also at Sotheby's, 27-year old sculptor Bruce Marchant, whose father is a well-known London dealer in Chinese ceramics, spent $27,500 for one of two known one-sheet posters for the 1921 film "The Kid," Charlie Chaplin's first full-length feature. "I bought the best image from Chaplin's most important film; I don't know when I might find another," he said after the sale. Mr. Marchant has been collecting for the last four years.

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